The death of Raymond Carver in 1988 came shortly after his final publication, Where I’m Calling From, a compilation of short stories that prompted critics to throne him as the founding father of Dirty Realism. Bill Buford, an editor for Granta Magazine defined the literary movement in 1983 as “…the fiction of a new generation of American authors…about the belly- side of contemporary life.” (Granta #8). Dirty Realists commented on the issues in society by narrating the life of ordinary middle class Americans that struggles with their own harsh tragedies.
Many realists’ authors were being categorized as minimalists as their diction lacked sophisticated description and had the distinct style of simple prose. Raymond Carver’s literature towards the end of his life is laced with the many aspects of dirty realism that is vivid in “Neighbours”, “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” and “Are These Actual Miles?”
Carver is able to remain true to the many aspects of dirty realism in “Neighbours” and is known as one of his most engaging stories.
It focuses on a lower white collar couple, Bill and Arlene Miller who fantasize about taking over the life of their neighbours, the Stones. The characters are introduced when the Stones go on vacation and leave their apartment in the care of the young couple. By the first paragraph, Carver has already stated the underlying issue “they talked about it sometimes, mostly in comparison with the lives of their neighbours…It seemed to the Millers that the Stones lived a fuller and brighter life” (Carver, 86).
He has presented relatable working class characters that are battling with the unsatisfaction that comes with constant comparison. The Millers are obsessed with the expensive luxuries and materialistic wealth that the Stones possess which leads to their unhappiness, Carver carefully comments on Western societies increasing curiosity that can turn into unhealthy behaviour . As the story progresses, Carver further dwells into Bills obsession with the apartment and deteriorating state of mind by symbolism. For example, the continued repetition of the mirror “He looked at himself in the mirror and then closed his eyes and looked again” (87), allows audience to discover Bills loss sense of identity. Symbolization is a strategy that helps minimalist authors create a guidepost for their readers as their literature lacks in-depth explanations. The climax is reached when the Millers discover that they have locked the key inside the apartment. Which leads to an epiphany. Gunter Leyopldt offers insight into Carvers use of epiphanies in his academic journal: Raymond Carvers “Epiphanic Moments. He states “In this case-study of realist epiphany, because the sudden illumination stems from the observation of a gesture logically unrelated to the experience it causes, it therefore seems out of proportion, very much in line with current definitions of the literary epiphany.” (587) while audience is not sure what the resolution is, we do know that some kind of “truth” had been spelled out for the Millers. With the use of relatable characters symbolism and epiphany, Carver has successfully applied dirty realism in Neighbors and has highlighted the disturbing truth of human nature.
“What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” is the short story that sprung Raymond Carver’s career into the literature spotlight of realists. The story revolves around two couples trying to find the true meaning of love. The narrator, Nic is accompanied by his new wife, Laura to their friends, Mel and Terri’s home. The conversation about love is initiated by Terri who recounts the story of her ex-husband, Ed who abused her physically. “He beat me up one night. He dragged me around the living room by my ankles. He kept saying I love you…” (170). Carver inspects the various kind of toxic relationships between a man and a woman such as the domestic abuse in the form of violence and words. Terri was physically damaged by Ed but it is Mel that abuses her verbally. Upon examining the sparse conversation between Mel and Terri the audience can come to the realization that there is tension in their relationship. It is made apparent ‘when Mel tells Terri to “Just shut up for once in your life, (178). Mel asserts that “true love is nothing but spiritual” and is not abusive but fails to realize his behaviour towards his own wife. ‘The realist mechanism Carver has employed here is described by Dainel Just in “Is Less More? Realism in Raymond Carver Stories” as “the osculation between details and an abstract absoluteness of time makes the protagonist remain in essentially in the identical situation as the beginning” (Just, 337). The characters still have not came to a clear conclusion of what real love is despite their on-going debate. Later on, Carver enhances the uncertainty by the narrators illustration of “It was hard keeping things in focus, the light was draining out of the room, ..”(183) In the beginning, the sun was illuminate but by the end it had disappeared completely just like the conversation has diminished into incoherent thoughts. Lastly, Carver incorporates the theme of alcoholism into the story. His characters are seen sitting around the kitchen table but the conversation is able to go an only if they are insistently drinking. For example “Mel opened the gin and went around the table with the hottle.” (175) Carver shows the
reliance society has on external stimulants when discussing hard topics. Carver creates dialogue that is sparse but is enhanced by the symbolism of the sunlight and alcohol that helps the audience grasp onto his observation of the fragility nature of lave.
Carver has incorporated dirty realism into “Are These Actual Miles?” which is recognized by critics world wide as one his best commentaries on consumerism . A married couple, Toni and Leo are at the brink of bankruptcy and the only way to over come it is to sell their convertible. The story revolves around Leo’s conscious state as he waits for Toni to return home from selling the car. Carver uses relatable conflict of financial problems that helps the audience connect to the characters. As the story progresses, Leo turns restless as he remembers his lavish spendings. For example, “What else did they have? …some big parties, fine travels, food. He figures that thousands spent on luxury items alone.” (132). In the novel, The Dirty Realism Duo: Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver, Michael Hemmington comments on Carver’s use of the recurring theme consumerism by stating “Americans who’s conscious is shaped by the images and ideology of consumer cultures… dictate how characters are to spend their leisure time and more generally, what will constitute there happiness” (Hemmington, 12). Leo and Toni’s extravagant taste is what left them in this desperate state. Carver lodges into society valuing money over morality two times in the story. First when Toni says “Ill have to have dinner or something”(129) alluding to selling her body to convince the buyers. Secondly when Toni recalls what the buyer said to her “He said personally he’d rather be classified a robber or rapist than a bankrupt.” (135). The grief of being bankrupt is more troubling than of being a criminal. Raymond Carver has successfully illuminated the gritty truth of the intangible American Dream and societies greed. a»
Raymond Carver’s “Neighbours”, “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love”, and “Are These Actual Miles?” has stayed true to the trademark style of dirty realists by using a minimalist approach of simple descriptions, unremarkable characters and dark themes. His abandonment of adverbs, extended metaphors and internal dialogue has forced the audience to closely examine the smaller details. He has been able to capture a wider audience as his characters are so flawed and human which makes them easily relatable. His indirect comment on society and the human nature sheds light onto the harsh realities of life. Carver once stated on writing that “In the end, the satisfaction of having done out best, and the proof of that labor, is the one thing we can take into the grave.” (1608, Carver On writing). By the end of his life, he established himself as one of the greatest short fiction writers and pioneers of dirty realism, and the proof of his labor that he took to the grave.